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“My language is important to me,” says Wawmeesh Hamilton, “because it’s part of who I am, it’s part of where I’m from. It’s linked to my ancestors.”

Learning my language is an act of defiance

As a Hupačasath First Nation member I feel a duty to try to learn my language, any way I can.

When I’m at my special spot by the ocean at Kits Beach, I recite words in my people’s language from a set of flash cards I have. I only hear for myself speaking, though. All the fluent speakers of my tribe’s language are gone now.

Be that as it may, I still feel an obligation, a sense of duty, to speak my language somehow, some way — any way that I can. To me, uttering our words even when I’m alone is like keeping the last embers of a fire alive.

I’m from the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. My people spoke a nuanced version of the Barkley Sound dialect of Nuu-chah-nulth, which is spoken by 14 tribes on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. There are three dialects of Nuu-chah-nulth: northern, central and Barkley Sound. The dialects are mutually intelligible, but there are differences between regions and even between tribes.

My late mother and father both spoke our language fluently. They spoke it to each other and to visitors and relatives. They just didn’t speak it to my sister and I while we were growing up.

My parents spent their childhoods in residential school. Although they still spoke the language after they left school, I’m convinced it’s the invisible hand of the school that influenced them not to teach it to my sister and I.

I’m doing the best that I can now to teach myself how to speak my language. My flash cards may be all that I have. But that’s better than silence.

Here’s my video:

This video is part of our ongoing coverage of the urban Indigenous community in the Lower Mainland. It was filmed and edited by Uytae Lee and produced by Lindsay Sample. Sign up here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.


 

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